"Poison Arrows" CD (Lookout!)
Unless Ted Leo comes out with a new record in 2004, Lookout! won't release anything else that's as good as this. With this follow-up to 2003's "A Crescent Honeymoon," the former members of American Steel begin mining a shaft that most bands left behind in the 1980s and find that precious gems still exist. Falling somewhere between Marc Almond's cabaret pop and Duran Duran's synth-driven guitar rock, "Poison Arrows" turns inward, tenderly focusing on the intricacies and complexities of human relationships which all too often lead to failure. Like all the best albums, it's guarded and occasionally bitter ("Dagger Vision") but there's also a potential for redemption here, suggested in songs like "Strays" in lines like "I'm coming home / With nothing but losses / I'm coming home to mend the cracks / In the fragile détente of our love." Unfortunately, it's difficult to look at this record in a vacuum which excludes Communiqué's history because of the debates that broke out when American Steel released "Jagged Thoughts." In truth, those discussions weren't debates as much as a collective questioning of whether evolving beyond a stringent and dogmatic scene was selling out. Most people didn't think of the album as a progression; American Steel - one of the most vital and creative punk bands of the last two decades - broke up not long after that. I've always wondered whether those attitudes caused the break-up or were just another factor and, in that respect, "Poison Arrows" seems like an answer record, an abiding gesture of defiance to people's limited and limiting expectations. "Jagged Thoughts" was much closer to "Poison Arrows" than it was to anything else that American Steel had done and, while you can still hear the echoes of the band's punk rock history, they resonate far more quietly now, held in notes and riffs that only seem to provide a peek into a rearview mirror at a past which is quickly receding into distant memory. I'm listening to "Poison Arrows" for approximately the 30th time in the last week and still can't think of anything else which has been released this year which is as elegant, stately and touching, nor am I aware of anything scheduled for release which will be able to catch up to these breathtaking songs. Sometimes, making a clean break is the best thing that can happen and the best decision someone can make; in this case, there's just no question that it was.